The Person Behind The Posts

Sunday, March 26, 2017

They Ruined the Kotel for Me

Photo credit:
Like so many other people, visiting the Kotel was an important part of my first-ever trip to Israel. To be honest, I pushed off going until the end of the trip. The Kotel! I understood it had potent, concentrated spiritual power. And I was a little afraid of it.

When I finally built up the courage to experience it for the first time, my husband and I walked to the Kotel Plaza. He went to the left and I went to the right. We agreed to meet back at a certain point in 20 minutes.

Once under the spell of the Kotel, I started weeping. I cried for so long that I was still crying when it was time to meet my husband in the plaza area. Unable to explain why I was crying, we went into the Rova and sat at a restaurant. And I was still crying. 

I couldn’t understand what had come over me. And I certainly had no words to explain it to him.
You would think that such a powerful emotional experience would knit me to the Kotel forever.

But you’d be wrong.

Let me state for the record that I am an Orthodox woman, married to a rabbi, now living in Israel. The Kotel ought to be a spiritual sanctuary for me. It is not. I hardly ever go to the Kotel anymore.

The purity of my first experience has been ruined - by politics, by power games and by overt sexism.

There is a 26-second video currently circulating on Facebook of a Japanese man at the Kotel. He is pictured hugging the Kotel, crying out. I don’t understand Japanese, but it would be clear to anyone that he is praying and crying with great feeling. At the end of the video, he falls into a bowing, prostrating posture.

I don’t know what religion, if any, this Kotel visitor follows, but I do know that Shinto and Buddhism are the two main religions in Japan. Chances are pretty excellent that he’s not a Jew. Despite that fact, he is permitted to worship in his own distinctive way at the Kotel. No one harasses him. No one arrests him. No one attempts to kick him out of the Kotel area.

And yet, actual Jewish women who wish to worship in their own distinctive way at the Kotel, with tallit and tefillin and Torah scrolls, are routinely harassed and have been arrested.

Men routinely sing, dance, shout and pray out loud on their side. Bar mitzvah boys are frequently accompanied by small groups of musicians who drum and sing.

Photo credit: Herschel Gutman Photography
However, when Jewish women gather in a group to pray, they are accused of being disruptive. They are maligned for compromising the purity of the Kotel. They are called an array of unspeakable names. They are routinely slandered.

I personally don’t pray with tallit, tefillin and rarely get near a sefer Torah.  But it’s hypocritical, at the very least, to say that a non-Jewish man can prostrate himself at the Kotel, praying to his god(s). Visitors of all the world’s religions can pray there to the gods they worship.

But Jewish women are obligated to behave as if the Kotel is an Orthodox shul?

Either the Kotel is a spiritual home for all of humanity or it’s an Orthodox shul whose visitors must abide by halacha.

You can’t have it both ways.

Here are a few other ways the Kotel has been ruined for me.

Women, even elderly women, have no alternative but to stand on plastic chairs in order to watch a Bar Mitzvah taking place on the men’s side of the mechitza. It’s a breach of derech eretz to not have found a safer, more dignified solution in all these years. If men had to stand on plastic chairs to watch a family simcha, you can bet this situation would have been addressed a long time ago.

It took me awhile to understand why, whenever we went to the Kotel, my husband reported having no problem getting a space right at the Wall. Women would be standing three deep, waiting for a space directly at the Wall. Then I realized that the women’s section is a fraction of the size of the men’s section. I suspect it’s gotten smaller over time.

Look at the first image, above. You can clearly see the disparity.

I grant that there are times, like Birkat Cohanim, when men really need more space. So build a moveable mechitza for those times if you must. But why are women disadvantaged with significantly less access to the Wall 100% of the time?

Besides having the lion’s share of space, the men’s side also has tables and umbrellas.

Since I’ve been in Israel, I’ve learned that the Kotel isn’t anywhere near as important, or as holy, as Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount). So the Kotel itself, despite its significant reputation, is simply not an important part of my Jewish life.

In the meantime, I'm waiting for this:

The Third Temple according to the prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel)


Fayge said...

Sing it, Sister.

Rahel Jaskow said...

The mehitza now has a fold-out platform for the women to stand on. No more plastic chairs. (Yay. -- yes, that cheer is sarcastic.)

The reason why the space at the Kotel is not equalized, according to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the government appointee in charge of the Western Wall and the holy sites, is that one does not diminish the holiness of a place (in this case, by taking part of the men's section and making it part of the women's section). He wrote a nine-page responsum on this, by the way. Still, the mehitza is opened during Sukkot and Pesah and a temporary mehitza put in to its left in order to give women more space. (I wonder how he justifies that.)

The men have a great deal of indoor space in an area called Wilson's Arch. The women have a corridor leading to Wilson's Arch for a few hours per week, usually at times that are not convenient.

There is a women's balcony above Wilson's Arch that has one-way glass, curtains, and earphone jacks so that women can listen to bar-mitzvah services taking place below. Men may enter the space unchallenged, but no woman may set foot on the ground level of Wilson's Arch. If she does, she will be threatened with removal from the area.

Who does the threatening? Employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, who act like a shadow police force at the Kotel. They wear no identification, but they act as if they rule the place -- because, at present, they do.

There is some more information in an article I wrote a few years ago, at this link:

Felipe said...

Thank you Rivkah! I see this as part of our Tikkun Olam. How might we correct or remedy our quandary? There are many Jewish and non Jewish men who are equally opposed to these policies. There is always a middle path to take...

Celeste said...

I feel the same way. I so wish the Kotel could simply have national monument status, like Masada and other places. I can hardly stand going to the Kotel as it has come to symbolize a Judaism that is divisive and cruel. But maybe that's appropriate. It is that division and cruelty that led to its destruction 2,000 years ago as well.

Unknown said...

imagine being the only jew on earth barred from the kotel for reminding all jews that the kotel is still exile to us jews & i hate the status-quo currently in place

Chana said...

Thank you. I feel the same way. It's depressing.

elly in amsterdam said...

Thank you for this post. I feel the same way and while the situation is like this, nobody and nothing will induce me to go and visit the Kotel, so will probably need to wait for Mashiach 🤔.

Not Applicable said...

I have no trouble visualizing the Beit HaMikdash however the Kotel experience leaves me cold. I can never concentrate as well as when I am on the bus. I learned to say a passuk from you and it is really special to me. I never want to forget where I am even on my way to the rest of my life in Jerusalem.

I hate having plastic cups shook in my face and I find it just too sensory overloaded to properly pray.So I will go when it works out but I don't have a yearning for this experience.

judit blumenfrucht said...

interesting.. I used to go to the kotel for the experience of the japanese man and somehow have stopped going and did not know have clarified that for me for although i am traditional and do not look for the new experience women would like to celebrate at the kotel i admire them for their wishes , to be a part of the religious ceremonies there. meanwhile i would just like to add something.. i understand from my rav that the kotel is a place of judgement, maybe the fact that the mens section is larger reflects the need for men to be judged rather than women...

Anonymous said...

I have a huge amount to say about this post Rivkah, but I will try to keep it simple.
1. There ARE Jews of Japanese descent. Not many, but some. (And at least one has become an Orthodox rabbi.)
2. The man prostrating himself is wearing both kippah and tzitzit. So I think maybe you misidentified a Jew as non-Jewish.
3. Some parts of your criticism are valid. But some parts are clearly a chillul HaShem to post on a public blog.
4. If you feel this way, fine, but realize that these are "feelings" rather than set facts. What about seeing these things from the opposite side? How about talking with some women who are HAPPY with the status quo at the Wall? Further, instead of just looking at it from the "Women of the Wall's" perspective, try having a conversation with some members of "Women FOR the Wall". It might not only open your eyes but possibly even change your feelings. You never know until you try!